Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit is obligated to investigate Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure payments he made to reporters at privately owned, pro-government news outlets weren’t taken from the national budget, observers said Thursday.
In an audio recording of a phone call that went viral after it was leaked on social media last week, Hun Sen told CNC TV general director Ouk Bora that “my wife and I support all the staff” at the station, regularly providing them money “during special events.”
On Wednesday, the prime minister acknowledged in a speech to workers in Kandal province that he paid reporters at CNC TV and Bayon TV—a station owned by his daughter that broadcasts reports sympathetic to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—because “it is important for the government,” and dismissed concerns over the source of the money, which he said was his own.
Hun Sen also questioned the origin of funding for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved in November last year over an alleged U.S.-backed plot to topple the government, but which continues to operate outside of the country under leadership living in self-imposed exile.
On Thursday, political analyst Kim Sok, who is living in exile in Finland, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit should investigate the source of Hun Sen’s payments to pro-CPP journalists to ensure the money hadn’t come from the national budget.
“The Anti-Corruption Unit must file a lawsuit with the court because this is a case of criminal corruption,” said the analyst, who fled Cambodia in August after Hun Sen threatened to arrest him for refusing to pay hefty fines related to a defamation conviction.
“There must be an investigation into Hun Sen’s expenditures.”
Kim Sok also questioned the prime minister’s spending on personal bodyguards, building stupas and “humanitarian aid”—including to garment workers and members of the armed forces—saying such payments “must be made transparent.”
Cambodian Center for Independent Media director Nop Vy echoed Kim Sok’s concerns in an interview with RFA on Thursday.
“Hun Sen’s support for private TV journalists should be investigated,” he said, calling for an independent probe to determine where the money originated.
“If it was from the state budget, the [National] Assembly should first approve the expenditure.”
Nop Vy also suggested that Hun Sen’s payments could amount to a conflict of interest between the state and the media, and undermine journalistic neutrality.
“They can’t report negatively about the government because Hun Sen has given them money,” he said.
“This constitutes a conflict of interest, and affects the freedom of the press.”
Calls by RFA to Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yenting went unanswered on Thursday.
But CPP spokesman Sok Ey San took to social media in support of Hun Sen’s financial contributions to the reporters.
“As prime minister, he needs to know their needs,” the spokesman wrote, adding that Hun Sen regularly distributes money to those less fortunate.
Meanwhile, several opposition party officials have denounced Sok Ey San as a “liar” in recent days after the CPP spokesman posted a message on social media last week claiming that at least 300 CNRP commune councilors had “defected to the CPP” recently, bring to around 2,600 the total number out of 5,007 elected CNRP councilors who had shifted allegiance to the ruling party.
In his post, Sok Ey San also said that the opposition is divided due to a “rift” between CNRP president Kem Sokha, who is currently under house arrest in Cambodia while awaiting trial on charges of treason, and acting president Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile in France to avoid a string of politically motivated convictions.
Chea Chiv, a CNRP official in Battambang city, told RFA that Sok Ey San had “lied to confuse voters and the international community” about the standing of the opposition party.
“He exaggerated the news,” Chea Chiv said, without providing further details.
Days earlier, Koeun Virat, a former CNRP commune councilor from the capital Phnom Penh, told RFA that Sok Ey San had named him among those who defected, but denied the claim, saying he “won’t betray my voters.”
“Sok Ey San … as a top official [of the CPP], you shouldn’t lie to the people,” he said.
Hun Sen and the CPP overwhelmingly won a July 29 election widely criticized as unfree and unfair following the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the CNRP and a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 of its senior officials.
Earlier this month, Hun Sen told said he would ask King Norodom Sihamoni to reestablish the political rights of only those 118 officials who had “shown respect for the Supreme Court’s ruling,” provided they each make an individual request to be reinstated. They would not be eligible to participate in politics as CNRP members.
Sam Rainsy responded by saying the move was a “trap” to reduce international pressure on Hun Sen’s regime following the election, while fracturing the opposition.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.